Best cooks master art of substitution


POSTED: Wednesday, April 22, 2009

In cooking, as in all creative ventures, the quickest way to improve is to develop the habit of resourcefulness. Check any cooking site or blog and you'll notice that the first move toward the improvisational freedom of the chef is a willingness to substitute. Experienced cooks freely make do with whatever they have on hand.

That's because running short of ingredients or equipment is a normal situation in any home kitchen — and especially in Hawaii, where reliance on ocean transport means added costs and delays. No matter where you live, at certain times of year ordinary items can suddenly get priced out of range.

The first strategy to successful substitution, therefore, is to develop an awareness of what's in season and on sale at certain times of year, like steaks in summer or turkeys in fall. What follows are some suggested work-arounds for common ingredients that are seemingly never in season and rarely on sale.

Cured meats

Smoked and salt-cured meats and fish provide more flavor than protein, so it's best to substitute according to taste rather than type.

For example, the usual substitute for hard-to-find andouille sausage is kielbasa, another smoked sausage — but its Polish flavoring just doesn't go with a spicy Cajun dish. Spanish chorizo is closer in taste, even though it is not smoked. A compromise might be to use a plain smoked sausage and add a healthy dose of Cajun spices to the dish.

You can also substitute the other way around, using sausages out of their casings for ground pork, especially in Asian dishes where only a little is called for. Just make sure the spicing is compatible and the sausage is not cured.

Prosciutto, a delicate cured ham, and pancetta, a cured but unsmoked bacon, are occasionally interchangeable, though pancetta is much fattier and usually cooked, whereas prosciutto is used raw, in thin slices. Both are expensive, though prosciutto “;ends”; can sometimes be found at deli counters at low cost.

Prosciutto is better substituted with a Serrano or Smithfield ham, sliced paper thin; American bacon can substitute for pancetta if it is blanched first to remove some of the smoky flavor.

Cheese and nuts

You can't cut corners easily on hard cheeses, though they can often be used interchangeably in Italian dishes: asiago, parmigiano, romano and their variants. Better to omit the cheese than resort to the processed stuff that comes in the green can. Vegans often substitute nutritional yeast flakes for the flavor or seasoned bread crumbs for texture.

Goat and feta cheese can often be used interchangeably, and one or the other can usually be found in small quantities, crumbled.

Depending on how they are to be used, you can easily substitute common nuts for more expensive ones: Brazil nuts or walnuts for macadamia; walnuts, hazelnuts or almonds for pine nuts (especially for pesto); peanuts for cashews (in stir-fry); and blanched almonds for pistachios.


It's convenient to have some kind of bottle around that won't spoil — dry vermouth, white wine, whiskey or port for stews and sauces; sake or Shaoxing for Asian cooking; sherry works well for both. With a little tweaking, you can often get one to stand in for the others, such as by adding a bit of sugar to a dry wine. If you don't have any kind of booze around, just use (more) stock — it's the flavor you're after, since the alcohol cooks off.

Liquors and liqueurs can substitute for each other if you match the sweetness and/or flavoring with extracts such as vanilla, almond or orange. But it's often easiest to buy the single-serving bottles, which are not expensive.

Condiments and spices

Nothing beats a genuine, aged Italian balsamic vinegar, but if you can't see your way to shelling out $30 to $100 for a condiment, most other vinegars will work fine unless you're pouring them over a dessert to lap up with a spoon.

A good red wine vinegar with a little sugar (which is what most supermarket “;balsamics”; are), sherry vinegar or rice vinegar in careful additions can substitute in most cases; low-cost Chinkiang (black rice vinegar) comes even closer to balsamic in taste.

For other condiments, the simplest, though not necessarily fastest, solution is to make your own. Most bottled flavorings are composed of a few basic ingredients and spices, and with a well-stocked pantry you can whip up a passable barbecue sauce, chili paste, huli-huli, ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, Worcestershire, hoisin, fish sauce, etc. The Internet is a great source for recipes: Google the condiment you're looking for and “;recipe,”; or search the Cook's Thesaurus at http://www.foodsubs.com. There are many variants out there, so you can probably find one close to the ingredients you have on hand.

The same is true of seasoning mixes, such as Creole, Italian, Old Bay, Poultry, and chili or curry powders.

When substituting for single spices, think in terms of groups. Basil, oregano and thyme are often found together and easily substitute for each other; rosemary, marjoram, savory, sage and tarragon are used in similar kinds of dishes, so substitutions will usually work.

The “;pumpkin pie”; spices — allspice, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and mace — can be combined in various ways to mimic one that is missing. What I think of as the Indian (or Mexican) spices — cumin, coriander, chili — also can be combined as pinch-hitters.

Of the common fresh herbs, Thai basil and mint are often interchangeable, and Italian parsley can be used for cilantro in small amounts. Leeks, chives, garlic, shallots and green onions all contribute aromatic flavor. Dried herbs can substitute for fresh, but sometimes it's better to substitute whatever fresh herb you have. If you're out of mint, consider raiding an herbal tea bag.

At times when you feel utterly lost with spices and end up with a dish that tastes like nothing, the simplest solution I've found is a dash of citrus: Lemon, lime or orange juice will perk up most dishes. Or if you have the other problem, a dish that tastes bitter and mixed up, it's amazing what stirring in a little sugar can do.

Substitutions work, in my opinion, when the results taste good and leave your diners happy. This also leaves the cook feeling mighty clever, and could eventually lead to that confluence of skill and luck known as the signature dish: not a substitute for anything.